The new rule

Of the people. By the people. But against the people?

Published: Thursday 15 June 2000

imageTwo separate incidents have recently shown the sorry state of governance in India. One happened in Almora, Uttar Pradesh, while the other occurred in Gujarat. Both are states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party ( BJP ). Although on two different planks, both the events throw light on the intolerant attitude that persists in the world’s biggest democratic set up.

First, let’s take the case of Gujarat. On April 7, Pratap Save, a retired colonel and social activist, was arrested while protesting against the establishment of an environmentally damaging port planned for the Umbergaon district of south Gujarat by the Indo- us consortium Natelco-Unocal. Head of the non-government organisation ( NGO ) Kinara Bachao Sangharsh Samiti ( KBSS ), Save breathed his last in Mumbai’s Hinduja hospital on April 20. While the state government insists that Save died of natural causes, his colleagues in the KBSS are certain that he succumbed to injuries inflicted while in police custody.

“They killed him just to please a multinational company,” says a bitter Harish Maachhi, a KBSS leader, adding on a defiant note: “We will use whatever resources we have to ensure that the port does not come up here.” After Save’s death, his wife Sunita has taken charge of KBSS with renewed determination to stall the construction of the Maroli port, to be built at an estimated us $300 million. Today, KBSS has the backing of a number of NGOs and prominent individuals whoare determined to fight against the project.

The site chosen for the Maroli port is ecologically very fragile and it comes under Category I of the Coastal Regulation Zone ( CRZ ) notification. Hence, no commercial activity can be carried out in this stretch without the prior permission of the ministry of environment and forests ( MEF ). It is exactly for this reason that construction of Maharashtra’s Wadhwaan port — which was to be situated within 20 nautical miles from the proposed Maroli port — was shelved. (Today, activists of the National Alliance for Peoples’ Movement from Dahanu in Maharashtra, who had successfully campaigned against the Wadhwaan Port, have thrown their weight behind the KBSS agitation in Gujarat.)

The site allotted for the Maroli port also has a stretch covered by mangroves that help to maintain the ecological balance of the area as well as support the marine food chain. “This is surely not development,” asserts Katy Rustom, a resident and activist from Dahanu. “The government should be advised not to meddle in this economically fragile area.”

But the government appears deaf to such reasoning. While the survey of the seabed has been put on hold after the Gujarat High Court ordered an inquiry into the tragic death of Save, the state has made it clear that the port will come up irrespective of the consequences. Brushing aside all fears that local fishermen stand to lose their livelihood because of the port, chief executive officer of the Maroli Port and Harbour Limited K Raman explained: “Surveys have proved that such fears are baseless. We have proposed to the state government to have a couple of local leaders on the board to gain their confidence. The company does not want to hide anything from the people.” This assurance, however, is hardly any consolation for the local people.

Meanwhile, yet another NGO that had to face the government’s wrath is the Almora-based Sahayog. It had released a report on the status of acquired immuno deficiency syndrome ( AIDS ) among the locals. The local people took offence and within days the NGO workers were attacked and eventually arrested. They are now under preventive detention under the National Security Act.

Commenting on the nature of the arrests, noted public interest lawyer from the Public Interest Legal Support and Research Centre ( PILSARC ) Rajeev Dhavan points out that the activists were paraded handcuffed before being imprisoned. “In 1980, the Supreme Court categorically prohibited handcuffing unless there was a clear and present danger of violence and escape,” said Dhavan.

He further pointed out that “the rule is bail not jail in breach of peace cases”.

But, according to Dhavan, although the seven-month-old pamphlet may have irked readers, the breach of peace was by the protestors who stormed the organisation’s office. Thus “everything the state machinery and the local bar did was contrary to the law on several counts,” says Dhavan.

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